The Stormy Present: Conservatism and the Problem of Slavery in Northern Politics, 1846-1865

The Stormy Present: Conservatism and the Problem of Slavery in Northern Politics, 1846-1865

The Stormy Present: Conservatism and the Problem of Slavery in Northern Politics, 1846-1865

The Stormy Present: Conservatism and the Problem of Slavery in Northern Politics, 1846-1865


In this engaging and nuanced political history of Northern communities in the Civil War era, Adam I. P. Smith offers a new interpretation of the familiar story of the path to war and ultimate victory. Smith looks beyond the political divisions between abolitionist Republicans and Copperhead Democrats to consider the everyday conservatism that characterized the majority of Northern voters. A sense of ongoing crisis in these Northern states created anxiety and instability, which manifested in a range of social and political tensions in individual communities.

In the face of such realities, Smith argues that a conservative impulse was more than just a historical or nostalgic tendency; it was fundamental to charting a path to the future. At stake for Northerners was their conception of the Union as the vanguard in a global struggle between democracy and despotism, and their ability to navigate their freedoms through the stormy waters of modernity. As a result, the language of conservatism was peculiarly, and revealingly, prominent in Northern politics during these years. The story this book tells is of conservative people coming, in the end, to accept radical change.


Imagine you lived in a small town in upstate New York, or Ohio, or Pennsylvania in 1848. It is a town like many others, with a main street that is dusty in the summer and a quagmire in winter. Its principal features are a courthouse, a tavern, and several churches, one with a striking spire. Most of the houses have two or three rooms on a single floor and are built of wood, but there are some brick houses too, some three stories high. You or a member of your family might run a dry-goods store or work as a bookkeeper for a local merchant; or perhaps you are a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, your salary paid by local taxpayers under the terms of a recent state law establishing a public education system.

You and your neighbors are prospering, on the whole. It has been more than a decade since the last major economic downturn. True, one of your relatives lost his farm when he failed to keep up the mortgage repayments, but he has recently borrowed the money for a steamship passage to California and new opportunity. Indeed, your town has grown rapidly in the last few years and some of the newcomers have arrived from Germany, England, or Ireland, founding new churches, speaking in accents you don’t at first understand. You weren’t born in the county yourself, but you feel like a wellestablished presence now: your children were born here—one is buried in the local cemetery—and you like to feel you know what’s going on.

Now imagine: recently, a pugnacious young man with some college education and political ambitions has established a new daily newspaper to rival the longer-established organ. You don’t always agree with the editor’s fiery editorials, but the new paper seems to have better and quicker access to reprinted articles from other states and even—via reprinting stories in the New York Tribune—from Europe, which is gripped by political turmoil. the news sparks interesting conversation among neighbors. One of the newcomers speaks personally of having witnessed the army opening fire on protestors in a German town. Another is a Chartist from Yorkshire, who claims to have been thrown out of his job in a textile mill for political organizing and who speaks eloquently and at length about the rapaciousness of the landed classes back home. There are landed gentry here, of a kind, but at least they don’t have titles.

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